When I talk about spirituality with clients and friends, some of the first things people relate it to are: yoga, meditating, and the word “God”. And I find because of this, starting a spiritual practice or even incorporating some sort of spirituality into your life can seem a bit intimidating.
I totally get it. For a while there, I was even scared myself to admit the sorts of “woo-woo” things I do out of the fear of judgement. I find that there’s a lot of misconception around spiritual practices, being too out there, too loopy, and far too difficult to understand.
However, I want to assure you that starting a spiritual practice doesn’t have to be as daunting or whacky as you may assume. You don’t have to book an expensive yoga get-away to India, or go on a 30 day fast, or climb any mountain, or get an Alex Grey poster for your room. Although, those are some things you can do if you feel so inclined.
However you want to slice it, there is no “right” or “wrong” way to developing or infusing more spirituality into your life. It can be very easy to get lost in the esoteric and oftentimes cryptic literature of some spiritual texts, and thus, can get frustrating.
Do you omm? Do you chant? Do you meditate?
What the hell do you do?
Well, from my experience of trying out all sorts of stuff, and experimenting with all kinds of practices, I’ve found one thing to remain consistent, and which, when you strip away all the woo-wooness, and Law of Attraction hype (no offense to The Secret), the single most important factor to not only spirituality, but to LIFE, is breathing.
Want to start a spiritual practice right this second? Start breathing.
Stop whatever you are doing, close your eyes, and start deep breathing.
Like deep, deep. Like deep into your groin deep.
Focus only on your breath, breathing in and out through your nose, and allowing your abdomen, your rib cage and chest to expand three-dimensionally.
Think about filling the lower lobes of your lungs with air. And to help, you can even place your hands around your ribs, and feel your ribs press against your hands as you breath in, and feel them move away from your hands as you breath out.
You can even amp it up a bit by adding the following mantra:
“Breathing in I am calm, breathing out I am peace.”
This is a quote from my boy Thich Nhat Hanh, and author of one of my favorite books, “Being Peace”.
(I don’t actually know Thich, but if I did, I’m sure we’d be pals.)
So, why is your breathing so important?
Well aside from the obvious fact that if we stop breathing we die, breathing is so important because….well, if we stop breathing we die.
You may not even be aware of it, but you are probably holding your breath this very moment.
As a natural bodily response to stress, our body will instinctively hold the breath.
Think about: when you get frightened, say, at a scary movie or if you’re walking across the street while texting and look up and see a car coming, what is your reaction?
You, gasp! You take a gulp of air! And then hold your breath! Your heart rate increases! Your raise your shoulders and your chest elevates! And your whole body tenses up!
Notice the tension in the shoulders in this picture.
Now hold that posture, and imagine going through the rest of your day like that.
That would really suck wouldn’t it? Wouldn’t be so comfortable either, right?
Well, in essence, that is pretty much how we hold our body on a day to day basis. Even though you may not be watching Saw 57, the stress from your job, your friends, the alarm clock, the traffic, etc, has the same “gasp” type effect on your body.
May make a little more sense now why your shoulders are always so tight.
Over time, the tension we hold in our muscles from stress can create tension patterns within the body, and this can eventually affect our posture, the way we move, and even how we perform in our workouts.
Whenever the body is tense and contracted, we limit our ability to flow easily through life, which, limits our ability to connect with ourselves on a spiritual level.
In order to progress yourself on a spiritual level, you must create ease within the body, and in order to create ease in the body you must also progress spiritually. The two work synergistically together and one can aid the other.
And one of the best ways to create ease in the body, is to focus on deep breathing.
A little science on breathing
On an even deeper physiological level, when we hold our breath, our body produces more “struggle” hormones (adrenaline and cortisol), which lead to the increase of the compound thromboxane, in the blood. Thromboxane actually constricts our blood vessels and is a normal response to stressful situations to help increase blood pressure to prepare against the given stressor. This is the “fight or flight” thingy you may have heard about.
However, when we breathe, and when we allow oxygen and carbon dioxide to move in and out of the body, we produce the antagonist of the thromboxane, which is prostacyclin, which, does the exact opposite: it relaxes our blood vessels which allows blood to flow more easily throughout the body, and allows our muscles to relax.
If we are always holding our breath, our body instinctively thinks that we are in a struggle or in a life threatening situation. And when we are fighting for our life, we don’t have the brain space or power to do much else.
When you’re life is on the line, there’s no room for play time.
“I would really like to be more spiritual.”
Not exactly what Sly was probably thinking here.
The breath is also important in the fact that breathing helps bring oxygen to our brain. And without adequate oxygen supply, we dumb down our decision making ability. Meaning, when aren’t brain isn’t working optimally (like without enough oxygen), our decision making ability declines, which means we may end up making a less than stellar choice. We make our decisions based out of fear, not out of love, because we are in a state of panic.
I’ve talked a little bit about letting go of fear and how that can eventually make room in your life for love. And to correlate it here, by letting go of fear, by decreasing the “struggle” hormones in our body by starting with deep breathing, we can make room not only for love, but for a spiritual practice.
To sum up this whole blog, I can break it down into this:
Deep breathing = less stress hormones = less fear = more room for better stuff.
Like love. And spirituality.
And ice cream.
Not to mention, lower stress hormones also equals a leaner body.
How To Incoroporate Deep Breathing Into Your Life
To give you some action points to take home with you today, I’m going to leave you with some ideas on how to incorporate deep breathing into your life.
1. Start at night, right before you go to bed. Laying in bed, right before you close your eyes at night is one of the easiest ways to start incorporating deep breathing into your practice. One, you are lying down and in a comfortable position, and two, you don’t have any where to be, or have any distractions.
Start by lying flat on your back, with your legs uncrossed and your arms to your sides. Close your eyes and start breathing in through your nose for 2 seconds, holding it for 2 seconds, and then breathing out, again throgh your nose, for 2 seconds.
With each in breath, focus on expanding your rib cage, and your abdomen, and with each out breath, think about releasing tension. With each out breath, release your day. Try not to focus on your thoughts, rather, just focus on your breath, imagining what the air would actually look like as it travels through your body.
2. Random check-ins. At various points throughout the day, do a quick check-in. Are you holding your breath? Do you feel your shoulders tensing? Does your rib cage feel tense?
Start by checking on yourself every couple hours. Whether you’re at work, on the T, or at the grocery store.
3. Purposely breath deeper when you are caught in a “situation”. Next time you’re in the express lane at Trader Joe’s and the person in front of you has 14 items instead of 12, purposely breath deeper. If you can start to feel tension building, stop and check yourself. Bring your focus back to your breath, and remember:
Deep breathing = less stress hormones = less fear = more room for better stuff.
Recommended Resources and extra reading for improving your breathing:
1. Anatomy of Breathing by Blandine Calais-Germain. Great reference book (with lots of pictures!) to help explain the different breathing patterns and the muscles involved.
2. My friend Tony Gentilcore blogs about breathing on his site.